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Column: ‘My medals are my armor.’ Jordan Chiles’ persistence guides her pursuit of greatness

Jordan Chiles competes on the beam during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August.
Jordan Chiles competes on the beam during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August. Chiles, who is set to compete in her second season with UCLA, is looking to continue to thrive after her remarkable achievements of the last two years.
(Mike Carlson / Associated Press)
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After the third time she wasn’t named to the U.S. women’s team for the world gymnastics championships, Jordan Chiles began to doubt she’d ever add that distinction to her resume.

Chiles missed out on the 2017, 2018 and 2019 world competitions but earned a spot on the 2020 Olympic team by compiling the third-best score at the U.S. trials. She expected to take part in two events in the team competition in Tokyo but was summoned for all four events after superstar Simone Biles shockingly withdrew because of mental health concerns. Unlike her teammates, Chiles didn’t have world championship experience to rely on when she stepped in.

“They know the big stage. They know the crowds and everything like that,” Chiles said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m on the biggest stage in the world. This is crazy.’”

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Contributing to a silver medal performance might have provided a satisfying end to Chiles’ elite career, a happily surreal farewell before she began her college career at UCLA. She thrived in her freshman year as a Bruin, earning three perfect-10 scores and first-team All-Pac-12 honors on the uneven bars and floor exercise, enjoying the camaraderie and freedom of college life even though the Bruins didn’t qualify for the NCAA championships.

But she couldn’t shake the feeling she had missed out on something. Jumping back up to the elite level for another try at the world championships would be difficult because practice time is limited in college gymnastics and skills are less complex. But Chiles never has backed away from challenges.

“It did get to a point to where I was like, ‘You know, maybe worlds isn’t for me,’” she said. “But then I was able to think, ‘OK maybe if I try one more time, I’ll see how everything turns out.’

Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August.
(Mike Carlson / Associated Press)

“My medals are my armor. I always tell kids no matter how many medals you get, no matter the circumstance or anything like that, just remember when you look at it why you got that medal.”

— Jordan Chiles

“This last time for 2022 was a big one. I got very emotional because it was wow, finally I was able to succeed at something I always had a dream about.”

Chiles helped the U.S. win a team gold medal — and a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics — in addition to earning individual silver medals on vault and floor exercise at this year’s world competition in Liverpool, England. She has brought that experience and those medals back to Los Angeles to begin her second season at UCLA, which will hold the team’s annual “Meet the Bruins” intrasquad exhibition Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.

The perseverance that helped her make the U.S. team in Liverpool fueled her during the competition after she fell off the balance beam twice during the qualifying round and missed out on the all-around finals. She stared down her demons in the team competition. She didn’t merely stay on the beam — she recorded a team-best score of 13.333.

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“My medals are my armor. I always tell kids no matter how many medals you get, no matter the circumstance or anything like that, just remember when you look at it why you got that medal,” Chiles said recently while sipping a smoothie at a mid-city café.

“The Olympic medal, that was my armor, knowing that I went through aches and pains and everything and even in that moment, we did that, so that’s what I look at. And then for my worlds medals, all three of them are just like, ‘Wow, you did this. You tried three times and the fourth time you made it.’ Each one is definitely a heart-warming thing. I couldn’t be more proud of myself.”

Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam for the U.S. women's gymnastics team at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Chiles was named for Michael Jordan, which could have been a burden to any athlete. She regards it as an honor, a topic she explored in an assignment in her communications class freshman year.

She took a deep dive into his life, learning that he left basketball for baseball but returned, that he defied limits and expectations to build a brand that made him a star beyond the confines of the court. That struck a chord with Chiles, who begins every day by looking in the mirror and reminding herself to be true to who she is — which is funny, energetic, curious and able to see challenges as a chance to improve her future, not an opportunity to fail.

“He was his own person. He did things that made me think that if he could do it, I could do it,” she said. “I will never live up to Michael Jordan because he is somebody unique. Same with Serena Williams. Same with Simone Biles. Same with Michael Phelps. It’s the same with everybody who believes they are the G.O.A.T. But you can live to your potential and do it your own way.”

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NCAA rule changes that permit athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness have benefited Chiles, whose endorsement portfolio includes Urban Outfitters, Pottery Barn Teen, Toyota and gymnastics-related products.

“It’s the best of both worlds. I get to enjoy stuff outside of my sport. And doing things inside my sport is pretty cool because I’m showing the younger generation you can do it. Go for it,” she said.

Chiles’ Olympic teammate Sunisa Lee, who won gold in the all-around before beginning her college career at Auburn, announced plans to return to elite gymnastics with an eye on the 2024 Paris Games. Chiles said she hasn’t decided about Paris but hopes she can continue to go back and forth between the college and elite levels.

For now, she’s looking forward to her second season as a Bruin and the leadership of coach Janelle McDonald, who replaced Chris Waller after a season made tense by a racially insensitive incident involving a former team member. Chiles knows McDonald through her friendship with Chiles’ elite coach, Cecile Landi.

UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles holds the Olympic silver medal she won at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“You definitely can tell the environment in the gym, the girls seem happier,” Chiles said. “I came to visit the other day and went into the gym just to see how everybody is doing and I was like, ‘Oh, you guys look so happy.’ And they said they feel great and they love Janelle, and all that stuff.

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“I’m really excited to see where the season goes with a new head coach. I know it’s going to be very hard, but I feel like it’s going to be a good challenge.”

For Chiles, another challenge is another opportunity to be great.

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